On the Road: Changing Directions in Syracuse
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On Tuesday, Aug. 27, I woke up in Buffalo and, after a concentrated burst of exploration in that fine city, hit the road and drove 150 miles on I-90 east to Syracuse. While flipping through the radio dial on the way there, it seemed like all the disc jockey chatter was focused on the New York State Fair. People in this region of New York seem to LOVE the State Fair, an annual 12-day, late-summer extravaganza that takes place in a town just west of Syracuse proper. During the drive to Syracuse, I thrilled to a radio host’s impassioned rant against a new State Fair policy banning goldfish as one of the Midway game prizes, and, later, I was less than thrilled to hear that people seemed to enjoy seeing Train and the Wallflowers perform the night before.
But the New York State Fair — featuring performances by Journey and Cheap Trick! — wasn’t the only game in town on Aug. 27. For it was on that evening that I attended a ballgame at NBT Bank Stadium, home of the Syracuse Chiefs. Ignoring the adjacent “Park and Ride” State Fair parking lot, I deposited my vehicle within a vast expanse of asphalt and proceeded toward this, the main entrance.
2014 was a very interesting season for the Chiefs, both on and off the field. Last fall, after a string of money-losing seasons and increasing dissatisfaction regarding the direction of the community-owned franchise, John Simone was replaced as general manager by Jason Smorol. In November I wrote an article about this chain of events, excerpted here:
In 2013, the Chiefs drew only 345,000 fans to NBT Ballpark, the lowest total since the stadium opened in 1997. Upon the conclusion of this dispiriting campaign, the news only got worse as a financial report released by the team’s board of directors revealed that the franchise had already lost more than $500,000 in 2013. This was, by far, the most that the International League franchise had ever lost in a single year.
Drastic times call for drastic measures. And at the end of September, the board relieved general manager John Simone of his duties. Simone had served in that role since 1996, taking over for his father, legendary executive Tex Simone, who had been at the helm since 1970. The 2014 season will mark the first time since the 1960s that a Simone hasn’t been in charge of the Chiefs, and stepping into that void will be none other than Smorol. Can he turn this ailing franchise around?
2014 not only marked Smorol’s first season at the helm, it also included the Chiefs’ first trip to the postseason since 1998 and their first division title since 1989. (On the day I was in attendance, they were on the verge of clinching the North Division title, a feat accomplished three days later.)
After introducing myself to Mr. Smorol, I proceeded to the press box and took in the view on what was an overcast but generally pleasant evening at 17-year-old NBT Bank Stadium.
The concourse was sparkling.
Walking further down the right-field line, one finds the “Hank Sauer Room of Legends.” Sauer played four seasons as a member of the Chiefs (1942-43 and 1946-47, with two years of military service in-between), hitting 50 home runs in 1947 at the age of 30. This solidified him once and for all as a bona fide power hitter, and he went on to play in the Majors from 1948-1959 (winning an MVP Award as a member of the Chicago Cubs in 1952).
Smorol later told me that the team has “grand visions” for the Room of Legends, as the long-term plan is for it to house the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame.
Outside of the Room of Legends, one finds this tribute to Syracuse’s “Mr. Baseball” Tex Simone. Prior to his retirement last year, Tex had been involved with the Chiefs, in one capacity or another, since the franchise’s inaugural season in 1961. (Other iterations of the Chiefs existed, in one form or another, from 1934-1957).
This bust had originally been located at the main entrance to the stadium, and its relocation to the Room of Legends did not sit well with the Simone family. This article, from Syracuse.com, details the ensuing controversy and provides a good glimpse at the turmoil that gripped the franchise prior to this season of transition.
Moving on to happier matters: 1911 is a local spirits and hard cider company whose products are readily available at this “Flavors of Syracuse” concession stand. (On an unrelated note, those two guys must have been so embarrassed when they realized that they wore the same outfit to the ballpark.)
All of the pregame photos shared thus far show few fans in the ballpark. But a significant number of early-arriving fans were indeed present, and their mission was to procure an autograph from special ballpark guest Bucky “Expletive Deleted” Dent. The line snaked through the concourse, as legendary Syracuse vendor Jimmy Durkin roamed up and down the line selling pens.
“Hey!” yelled Durkin. “Get your own pen right here! They’re any color you want! They’re only a dollar! Hey!”
“What we found out is that Syracuse doesn’t have a very large Latino population,” Smorol later told me. “This might be our last Latino Night.”
Speaking of Smorol, here he is on the scoreboard making a nightly pregame speech that details all of the activity that’s about to take place at the ballpark. I had seen Rochester Red Wings general manager Dan Mason making a similar speech several days before, and I think it’s a great idea. It sends the message that the general manager is open and personable, ready and willing to interact with the fans and listen to their suggestions and questions, and this is an especially important thing for someone in Smorol’s position to do. He’s the proverbial “new guy in town,” after all, and a big part of his job this year was to turn around the public perception that the Chiefs are an out-of-touch organization.
Oh, and for those keeping score at home: The videoboard seen above was installed prior to the 2012 season, boasting dimensions of 30 by 55 feet.
Meanwhile, my wandering continued. This is the view from down the right-field line:
During these solitary travels, I came across a piece of signage left over from the “Sky Chiefs” era. The team went by this moniker from 1997-2006, reverting back to the original “Chiefs” name in 2007. At that point the team adopted a train-themed identity that “honors the mighty railroads that shipped goods manufactured in Syracuse all over America.”
The Rochester Red Wings were that evening’s opponent. In the team’s bullpen, I noticed one-time Moniker Madness semifinalist Mark Hamburger receiving a vigorous back rub from one of his relief corps compatriots.
Hamburger then returned the favor. Hey, you scratch my back…
The game was now under way, and the Latino Night videoboard graphics were in full effect. (I’m not exactly sure why Steven Souza is listed as having a .000 batting average, as he played in 96 games for the the Chiefs this season. He and several other core Syracuse players were called up to the Nationals at the conclusion of the regular season, and this move angered Chiefs fans who felt that the team should have remained intact for the playoffs.)
The Chiefs are one of a few teams to feature an elderly mascot among their costumed character repertoire. Here’s Pops, up close and personal.
Soon thereafter, I caught a less up-close but still quite personal view of Scooch. Introspective mascot alert!
I didn’t just meet with mascots during these early-game peregrinations. I also spent a significant chunk of time with Brian Goswell and his son, Owen. They were my designated eaters for the evening (you know, the individuals recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).
Brian, his wife, Joanne, and Owen had driven all the way from Kingston, Ontario, in order to obtain designated-eating glory (although Joanne, probably wisely, had chosen to abstain). Brian, who works for the city of Kingston, serves as the president of the baseball league in which Owen, 12, competes. Owen is a catcher, and Brian proudly told me that he’s “got the art of framing a pitch down pat.” Owen, whose favorite player is Josh Thole, told me that I bore a striking resemblance to Thole’s battery mate R.A. Dickey. Does he have a case here?
Eponymous Biz Blog author:
Brian, a dedicated reader of this blog for several years, had long had designated-eating aspirations. He contacted me shortly after my 2014 trip itineraries were posted and promptly secured this honor, all the while unaware that his passport had expired. Thanks to his deft handling of the required bureaucratic maneuvers, a new one arrived in the mail the day before and his plans proceeded apace.
Oh, the irony: The Goswells crossed the border into the United States so that they could eat some poutine. Poutine, of course, is a Canadian specialty consisting of french fries covered with gravy and cheese curds. This might be blasphemous to those living north of the border, but the Chiefs’ iteration of this dish replaced the cheese curds with shredded mozzarella.
Owen, an avowed poutine fan, says that his favorite poutine purveyors are New York Fries and Smoke’s Poutinerie. Of the Chiefs’ offering, he remarked that it’s “Awesome, better than some in Canada. I like the different cheese — mozzarella instead of curds.”
“When cheese, gravy and fries are added together, you can’t lose,” added Brian.
Next up was a fried clam sandwich, served with cole slaw and french fries.
Designated eaters check in, Syracuse Chiefs They drove in from Kingston, Ontario https://t.co/wkuHMiJ8Rt
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 28, 2014
“I’m not big on seafood, but I thought that this was good,” said Brian. “My wife was right: ‘Try it — you might like it.'”
“But she doesn’t need to hear about this,” replied Owen.
Next up was chicken wings with “Bang Bang” sauce, which Smorol raved about. (“It’s good on everything!” he enthused at one point. “Bang bang everything!”)
My photo of the wings is abysmal.
I’m not too familiar with the history and origin of Bang Bang sauce, but it appears to be a spicy-sweet mayo-based condiment.
“Jason was right: ‘Bang Bang everything,'” said Brian. “These are really good.”
“I agree,” said Owen.
“It’s not much that you and I agree on,” said Brian. “You’re coming around.”
“Don’t tell Mom this, either,” said Owen. “Then she’ll want us to get along all of the time.”
Meanwhile, Smorol couldn’t help but help himself to some chicken wings. What, the GM worry?
The upstate New York specialty that are salt potatoes made an appearance as well. I have no other photos or quotes involving these potatoes, but here they are.
Finally, there were some hot dogs. Hofmann’s hot dogs, to be exact, a local company that spells its name in counterintuitive “one F, two N’s” fashion.
“It was huuuge,” concluded Owen.
And that, as they say, was that.
“I have now fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams,” said Brian. “Being your designated eater.”
Brian had one final request before disappearing into the sunset. Would I please do a Syracuse Chiefs #Cupdate?
But of course. This one’s for you, collectible cup aficionados, courtesy of Brian Goswell.
After parting ways with the Goswells, I walked over to the concourse area behind home plate and introduced myself to legendary vendor Jimmy Durkin. I ended up conducting a brief interview with Jimmy, which will form the basis of an upcoming MiLB.com piece (I’m telling ya, this season’s road trip content might never end).
Lest we forget, there was a game going on.
Lloyd is a Chiefs superfan known for his profound heckling skills, and his backstory is an interesting one (read all about it in my “Suspect” MiLB.com piece). Here he is in action.
Lloyd “the suspect” Broadnax. Syracuse Chiefs heckling superstar https://t.co/NgimRgTExZ
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 28, 2014
The Chiefs held a “Tattoo Night” promo earlier in the season, in which fans got a team-logo tattoo in exchange for season tickets. Lloyd, not surprisingly, was one of the fans who took part.
Jared Wicks, a die-hard Chiefs fan who often sits in the same section as Lloyd, got a tattoo as well.
Lloyd, Jared, Ziv and everyone else had plenty to cheer about, as the Chiefs plated a pair in both the seventh and eighth frames en route to a 4-3 win. It was a good — “neigh” — great victory for the Chiefs. The fans cheered themselves “horse.”
I took that picture on my way out of the ballpark, but that was only so I could go back into the ballpark. My next stop was the Chiefs’ ground-floor front-office area, which features several full-to-bursting display cases of Chiefs memorabilia.
I ended up spending quite a bit of time in the front office, chatting with team staffers who were decompressing after (yet another) long day. I also spoke with 98-year-old Don Waful, a former Chiefs team president who is still a regular presence at the ballpark. Here, Waful points to his plaque on the Chiefs Wall of Fame.
Waful, a WWII veteran, spent more than two years in a German POW camp located in Poland. One of the American prisoners alongside him was Fred Johnson, the father of former Nationals manager Davey Johnson. Last February, Johnson attended the Chiefs’ annual Hot Stove Dinner specifically so that he could talk to Waful about his war memories. From a Syracuse.com article on the encounter:
Fred Johnson was a tank commander who slept in the same section of an Oflag64 barracks as Waful and six other men. But Davey Johnson recalls that his father – quiet and reserved – rarely spoke about what he endured as a POW.
Johnson looked forward to what he might learn from Waful, who told him about the intense cold at the camp, during winters in Poland. Waful told him about the awful nature of the food. But he also remembered the extraordinary camaraderie that bound together all the prisoners during the harsh days of the war.
It’s hard to top a story like that, so I won’t even try. Good night from NBT Bank Ballpark, an enjoyable place to take in a ballgame and a fine entertainment alternative to the New York State Fair.